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Curr Biol. 2012 Jul 24;22(14):1339-43. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.05.023. Epub 2012 Jun 21.

A single-molecule Hershey-Chase experiment.

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Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA.


Ever since Hershey and Chase used phages to establish DNA as the carrier of genetic information in 1952, the precise mechanisms of phage DNA translocation have been a mystery. Although bulk measurements have set a timescale for in vivo DNA translocation during bacteriophage infection, measurements of DNA ejection by single bacteriophages have only been made in vitro. Here, we present direct visualization of single bacteriophages infecting individual Escherichia coli cells. For bacteriophage λ, we establish a mean ejection time of roughly 5 min with significant cell-to-cell variability, including pausing events. In contrast, corresponding in vitro single-molecule ejections are more uniform and finish within 10 s. Our data reveal that when plotted against the amount of DNA ejected, the velocity of ejection for two different genome lengths collapses onto a single curve. This suggests that in vivo ejections are controlled by the amount of DNA ejected. In contrast, in vitro DNA ejections are governed by the amount of DNA left inside the capsid. This analysis provides evidence against a purely intrastrand repulsion-based mechanism and suggests that cell-internal processes dominate. This provides a picture of the early stages of phage infection and sheds light on the problem of polymer translocation.

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